Dan Murphy: Another Imprudent Pardon

Cattle are seen near the flames of the Lodgepole Complex fire in Garfield County, Montana, U.S. July 21, 2017.

For those who followed the infamous takeover of a remote Oregon wildlife refuge by members of the Bundy Clan a couple years ago, the names Dwight and Steven Hammond should ring a bell.

As later reports and testimony corroborated, the Hammonds’ imprisonment was the inspiration for the Bundys and their supporters to storm the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge during the Christmas holiday and occupy the buildings and grounds. The self-styled militia group conducted a 41-day armed standoff that ended with the death of LaVoy Finicum, who was shot and killed by Oregon State Police troopers when he drove his truck into a ditch at a roadblock while trying to escape the wildlife refuge.

At the time of the illegal occupation, Ammon Bundy, who led the takeover, told CNN that one of the reasons for the action was to demand the release of the Hammonds, who had both rejected his assistance, by the way. Of course, Bundy also demanded that the federal government relinquish control of the wildlife refuge “so the people can reclaim their resources.”

As CNN reported at the time, the Hammonds had argued in court that they started a fire on their property simply to reduce the growth of invasive plants and brush that could fuel a forest fire, but that the fire got out of hand.

Prosecutors, however, said the pair set the fires to cover up evidence of illegal poaching, a claim that was repeated in this space, thanks to first-hand testimony from hunters familiar with that area of eastern Oregon and knowledgeable about what the Hammonds had privately told family members about the incident.

Now the pair are free, as last week President Trump granted clemency to both ranchers.

“Justice is overdue for Dwight and Steven Hammond, both of whom are entirely deserving of these Grants of Executive Clemency,” according to a White House statement.

Dwight Hammond had served approximately three years in prison; his son Steven had served four years, CNN reported.

The Trial Tells the Tale
The White House statement also criticized the Obama administration, arguing that prosecutors filed an “overzealous appeal” that led to the two men’s five-year prison sentences, claiming, “This was unjust.”

No, what’s unjust is pardoning a pair of convicted felons whose case did not trigger the required conditions for a presidential pardon. Although there are no binding rules governing such pardons, both White House norms and Department of Justice protocol require a thorough review of cases, not to mention justification on legal, not political grounds, for issuance of a commutation or a full pardon.

To put into perspective the length and complexity of the “normal” clemency process, there are more than 10,000 such requests currently backlogged, cases that DOJ officials have yet to review.

More to the point, a little background on the fire that started this whole controversy, courtesy of a report in Wildfire Today, only amplifies the inappropriateness of this White House pardon.

Despite White House claims of “conflicting” evidence, Dusty Hammond, the grandson and nephew of the Hammonds, who was present when the fire was set, testified at the trial that after firing (illegally) into a herd of deer on Bureau of Land Management acreage and killing several bucks, Steven Hammond handed out boxes of matches and told members of the hunting party to “light up the whole country on fire.”

After the group returned home, Dusty testified that Dwight Hammond told him to “keep [his] mouth shut, that nobody needed to know about the fire.”

The president’s pardon of the Hammonds undercuts the verdict of the jury, which heard all of the testimony and all of the evidence and returned a guilty verdict.

Nothing in those proceedings justified a presidential pardon.

Worse, members of the so-called militia movement, including the Bundys and their ilk, will no doubt use the pardon as justification for future actions aimed at their misguided ambitions to seize public lands — which belong to the people — and “return” them to local residents, meaning ranchers such as the Hammonds, who enjoy grazing rights on those lands.

Even as White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders described the Hammonds as “upstanding citizens,” CNN reported that a former law enforcement official who was involved in the Oregon wildlife refuge takeover told the network that it is “ridiculous and disgraceful that the commander in chief is now providing those who break the law with what will be interpreted as a rallying cry for future unlawful action.”

In fairness, Dwight Hammond told The Daily News in Longview, Wash., that he emerged from prison with “a new perspective” on the conflicts between ranchers and regulators.

“I have had the opportunity to … realize that a lot of my life has been misdirected,” he said, explaining that while he’s spent decades fighting with BLM and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials, he realized “his focus should have been elsewhere.”

That sounded promising, until he revealed that “elsewhere” is prayer in public schools, noting that he’s “firmly on the side of allowing prayer and religious sentiments” in classrooms.

Great. As if fighting over who controls public lands across the West isn’t controversial enough, now Hammond wants to light a metaphorical fire that would engulf the entire nation.

Thanks, Dwight. I can only pray that your far-right followers take a pass on re-litigating that firestorm.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.